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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bigger government (building) needed

Posted By on Thu, Jul 24, 2014 at 4:00 AM

Shortly after I arrived at the Statehouse nearly two decades ago, lawmakers revived talks about constructing a new government building north of the Statehouse where there’s now a parking lot.

It never happened. But the need hasn’t gone away.

Lawmakers still work in cramped cubicles tucked in tough-to-reach spaces. And many of the state’s appellate court judges work in offices rented by the state, while other court functions are spread across private buildings.

But most importantly, the building doesn’t serve the public well.

Legislative committee rooms remain undersized and often incapable of handling the crowds that come to testify on bills. And school kids and other groups who come to the Statehouse have no space to organize or greet a tour guide or just stash their coats.

Of course, constructing a new government building is not cheap. When lawmakers debated the issue some 15 years ago, they envisioned a building that would have cost roughly $200 million. If the state borrowed that cash, it would likely make payments of about $16 million annually for 20 years.

The original buildings plans would have created enough space for judges, lawmakers and extra parking. That would have freed up space in the Statehouse for expanded offices and committee rooms.

There’s no doubt that same building would cost even more today. And for many Hoosiers, that would likely be a waste of government money. After all, Gov. Mike Pence last year cut funding to universities and is planning to do so again this year. He sold a plane to try to save cash – even though the state finished the fiscal year with some $2 billion in the bank.

And money is the primary reason the building hasn’t happened yet. Back in 2001, then-Gov. Frank O’Bannon vetoed a bill that authorized a judicial building. And a few years before that, then Gov.-Evan Bayh nixed similar plans for a building on that parking lot, the Indianapolis Business Journal reports.

Later, Bayh did oversee the construction of a second state office building just west of the Statehouse. That houses dozens of state agencies and is part of the larger state government complex that includes a larger office building and the Statehouse.

But the state has outgrown its space. It spends more than $31 million annually in lease payments for state agency space — a number that doesn’t include the rental costs for court offices, according to a story last year in The Journal Gazette.

Now lawmakers have asked the state’s Office of Management and Budget to study the feasibility of a new building.

One key question is whether a new building could actually save the state money by alleviating the need to rent office space.

But the focus of the study should be on how a new building could serve the public. Could an expansion make legislative and court hearings more accessible to Hoosiers? Will a new building allow for improved technology that makes monitoring government easier?

Could a new building offer students and other visitors a better educational experience?

If the answers to those questions are yes, policy makers should take a serious look at spending the money for a new judicial and government center. But if they’re no, then justifying the additional costs should be difficult.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.
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